• August 8th, 2022
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twenty50 Considers the Consequences of Assimilation


By John Moore

 

Playwright Tony Meneses was intrigued when he came across a Pew Research Center study that predicted 2050 will be the year the U.S. population will no longer have a white majority. That, in itself, could make for a compelling “near-future” pot-boiler.

Imagine: What will white people do to maintain power when they no longer have the numbers? Form coalitions with minority populations? Refuse to cede power? Take up arms?

Meneses takes this census scenario one step further in his world-premiere play, twenty50: What if, in order to maintain their supremacy, white people simply absorb Latino people into their own population? Just as happened long ago with the Germans, Jews, Greeks, Italians, Irish and other groups once considered “less than” white.

There would be many ways to explore that storyline, most from the white point of view. Meneses is more curious about the Latino perspective. (featured on cover)

“How can we resist that opportunity?” Meneses wondered. “But what would be the cultural cost? And would we be complicit?”

Photo: Adams VisCOM “People might walk into twenty50 with the idea that this is going to be a fun diversity story about how racism is finally over,” said Playwright Tony Meneses. But the play actually argues the opposite. (Left-right: Frankie J. Alvarez, Tania Verafield and Valentina Guerra).

twenty50 centers on a México-born immigrant who is now running for Congress in middle América. He came to the United States as a boy with his father, who then worked on a farm for 25 years. The compromises this man now must make to win can be boiled down to one telling question: Will he go by the name Andres — or Andy? (This might remind you of a certain Texas Senator born Rafael Edward — but is more commonly known as Ted. Meneses is not naming names, but, “I will say there are conservative Latino politicians out there right now whose policies don’t protect their own people,” he said.)

Andres — or Andy — “is now at a crossroads where he has to decide whether he identifies as Latino or white, and consider how that may help or hinder his campaign,” Meneses said. His campaign manager is a Latino who believes the man cannot be seen as Mexican and still win.

“My hope is that when audiences meet the Salazars, they don’t see a Latino family — but simply a family. I believe this is a play for Americans — and we’re all Americans.”
Tony Meneses, Playwright

What Latino people might be willing to do for a slice of América’s power pie is the heart of what twenty50 is about, said Director Henry Godinez. Because Andres must decide how much he should assimilate into the broader white culture, while still being perceived as “Hispanic enough” by his own Latino community.

“What I love about this play is that it brings up a very difficult and yet very honest conversation that is going on within the Latino community right now, which is this: What are the consequences of a future in which Latinos have the luxury of no longer being considered ‘the other’?” Godinez said. “What I think the play does so beautifully is that it suggests progress has consequences.”

The biggest being its impact on cultural identity. Thirty more years of blending will surely further blur the distinctions between skin colors, that much is certain. Meneses, who teaches at Fordham University, and Godinez, who teaches at Northwestern, are already seeing it among their many multicultural students.

“I have light-skinned students who actually self-identify as ‘white-passing Latino,’” Meneses said. “And they acknowledge that white privilege as part of their identity. They may be Latino or Latina, but they are starting to have this very keen awareness about the history of how white supremacy and race politics work, and how they intersect with the systems that have put historically systemic oppression into place.”

twenty50 is a family drama. It’s a political thriller. It’s a classic American Dream story. It’s a comedy. It’s a cautionary tale. It is also, Meneses says, “my social justice dystopia.” Especially to those who assume that an America without a racial majority will inherently mean a more harmonious one.

“People might walk into twenty50 with the idea that this is going to be a fun diversity story about how racism is finally over,” Meneses said. But the play actually argues the opposite.

twenty50 raises important questions about power and assimilation and how that all intersects with race and identity. It asks big questions about what is América? Where is América going? And who gets the privilege of being considered ‘us’?”

Meneses didn’t write his play as a specific response to who is currently occupying the White House, but he admits “the audience is inevitably going to receive the play based on whatever is in the headlines at the time it is performed,” he said. Godinez expects the play to evoke strong personal reactions, especially during a presidential election year in which immigration is again a central issue.

“For many people, América is no longer a place where refugees and immigrants see a beacon of light,” Godinez said. “They skip right over América and go to Canada — literally. My hope is that this play will make people ask, ‘Is that really the country we want to be?’ And specifically for the Latino community who see the play, given the potential power of our vote: ‘Is that the country we want to create with our vote?’”

Meneses strongly identifies as a Mexican immigrant himself who moved here with his family from Guadalajara when he was 8 months old.

“This is what I write about,” he said, “and given where we’re at right now, it’s such an important thing for me to give voice to the Mexican immigrant, because I want to demystify that. I’m a Mexican immigrant, and I think I’m a pretty nice guy. But if you say the words ‘Mexican immigrant’ to certain people, they think that’s a terrifying thing. I hope that I can dispel a lot of the (bleep) out there about who people think we are.

“My hope is that when audiences meet the Salazars, they don’t see a Latino family — but simply a family. I believe this is a play for Americans — and we’re all Americans.”

Next week, The Weekly Issue/El Semanario will publish an interview with Tony Menses and Henry Gondinez conducted by John Moore, Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

Twenty50 will run through March 1, in the Space Theater, at the Denver Center for the Performing Arts, Helen Bonfils Theater Complex, 14th & Curtis Streets, Denver, CO. To purchase tickets online, DCPA Box Office, denvercenter.org or call 303-893-4100. (Cover photo features Zeus Mendoza as Andres Salazar in “twenty50,”).

 

John Moore was named one of the 12 most influential theatre critics in the U.S. by American Theatre Magazine. He has since taken a groundbreaking position as the Denver Center’s Senior Arts Journalist.

 

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